An Oklahoma judge has ruled that pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson must pay $572m for its contribution to the state’s opioid addiction crisis. The case was the first to reach a verdict in light of the thousands of lawsuits filed against opioid creators and distributors. According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been over 400,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in the US between 1999 and 2017.
The ruling states that the company deceptively marketed opioids by downplaying the risks of addiction, which led to doctors prescribing the drugs heavily. Since 2000, approximately 6,000 people have died in Oklahoma from opioid overdoses.
Addiction to opioids – including prescription painkillers like fentanyl – has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and destroyed communities across the US
The company announced that it would appeal the judgement after the verdict was delivered. It claimed its painkillers accounted for less than one percent of total opioid prescriptions in Oklahoma and the US, including generic medications. It also argued that the state’s public nuisance accusation was founded on “radical theories unmoored from more than a century of Oklahoma case law”.
Ahead of the case, Oklahoma had already reached a $270m settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, as well as an $85m settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals. The fine for Johnson & Johnson was significantly lower than some investors and analysts had expected, causing the company’s shares to rise by two percent in extended trading after the verdict.
The US’ opioid epidemic is widely considered to be one of the worst public health crises in the nation’s history. Addiction to opioids – including prescription painkillers like fentanyl – has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and destroyed communities across the US.
Plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits are sure to have been following the Oklahoma case closely. Two Ohio counties are currently preparing for a trial in October, which will consolidate 2,000 opioid lawsuits. It’s highly likely that the Oklahoma case will shape the nature of this upcoming trial, as its verdict represents a significant step forward for holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in the crisis and its consequences.